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Tue 26 Nov 2019
Picture Perfect at Burton Constable
Mike Brookes // Research Volunteer
Mike Brookes
Research Volunteer
William and Winifred - the Hidden Meanings of a Masterpiece

When William Wilberforce ran for election in 1780, his campaign cost him a tidy £8,000. Today, this would be worth about £690,000! Only 10 years earlier, William Constable and his sister Winifred spent the same on their Grand Tour of Europe (1769-71).

William ordered this double portrait of himself and his sister towards the end of the Tour, while staying in Rome. For this memento of their visit and statement of status, he commissioned Austrian court painter Anton von Maron (1733-1809) who had made a good living painting other notable Tourists such as Sir William Hamilton.

Although commissioned and painted in Rome, only the preliminary sketches were finished during their stay. The final work, together with a smaller version (now lost) was shipped to Burton Constable in 1774. Sadly, it arrived shortly after Winifred’s death, when William was inconsolable.

The portrait now hangs alongside those of William’s ancestors in the Great Hall, whch was one of the key spaces William redesigned during his great Georgian period of alterations, presiding over this central space.

In the blog below, Mike Brookes (a research volunteer with the Burton Constable Foundation) looks at the hidden messages in this striking work of art.

William Constable in the garb of famed philosopher Rousseau, by Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-89)
A Man of the Enlightenment

William was dogged by ill-health, referenced by his seated position in the portrait. His wheelchair can still be seen at the Hall, and the state of his health during the Grand Tour is described in detail in Winifred’s journal (now in Beverley Treasure House).

William was childless, only marrying late in life following the death of his sister; it may have been this childless state that made him so eager to obtain a quality portrait to accompany those of his predecessors, the Viscounts of Dunbar.

A man of the Enlightenment, William described himself as a collector, employing the best artists to embellish his place with magnificence, taste and propriety. He described himself as “a bit of a Vertu” - a gentleman (vertuosi) distinguished from the hoi polloi by his tasteful collecting and love of learning for its own sake.

William's trip across the Continent was characterised not only by his quest for a remedy to his illnesses, but also by a desire to meet with some of the foremost minds of the Enlightenment period, such as Genevan philosopher, writer and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

By establishing both his line of descent and his credentials as a connoisseur, William was securing his status amongst the British aristocracy.

Detail from the Portrait of William and Winifred
Classical Fashion & Political Statements…

In the Georgian period, ‘genre’ paintings of historical and neo-classical themes were at the peak of tasteful artistic fashion. Von Maron’s painting depicts William and Winifred as the Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato (95-46 BC) and his wife Marcia.

William identified with Cato, a highly principled, stubborn Republican of moral integrity who fought against bribery and corruption. This scene illustrates the moment when Cato learns that his struggle with his autocratic adversary Julius Caesar is finally lost. Rather than accepting Caesar’s terms, Cato subsequently committed suicide in horrific fashion by disembowelling himself.

 William would also have felt like an outcast in society. He and his family were staunch Roman Catholic recusants. As such William was denied the opportunity of public office by the Penal Laws following the Jacobite rebellions. Little wonder therefore that he spent his money on artefacts rather than politics in order to establish his place in society! The poignant inclusion of Cato’s ‘fasces’ (a rolled bundle of sticks and an axe, symbolic of Imperial Roman authority), abandoned in the bottom right of the painting, echoes William’s powerlessness in the political arena. He would have sympathised with Cato’s anger and resistance, summed up by the words on his scroll which read: “All of the world has been subdued apart from the fierce heart of Cato”.
Menander, seated. Italian, 1770.
…or not?
An alternative interpretation of the work, suggested by Ivan Hall, is that William was poking fun at himself. A small statuette - a miniature version of a Vatican sculpture of the Greek comic poet Menander - is sometimes on show beneath the portrait itself in the Great Hall. The poet appears in an uncannily similar pose to that of William in the painting. Furthermore William - like Cato - liked a glass of wine, and sometimes collected or commissioned works of art related to alcohol (one example is William Collins’ figure of Bacchus, the God of Wine (1768) in the Dining Room). Was William really taking his classical history so seriously?

But in the end, this stunning painting tells its own story: a masculine and defiant William, albeit weakened; a caring, loving Winifred, supportive in his illness; and finally, the contrast between light and shade, caught in the folds of the dramatically depicted robes - typical features of allegiance to Roman Catholicism in Baroque art.


Edited by Philippa Wood, Curator

Acknowledgements to Dr David Connell and Dr Ivan Hall